The Islamic Republic's culture minister is under the cosh for reacting tardily to last month's publication of a cartoon, showing a cockroach speaking Azeri Turkish, which sparked rioting across Iran's Azeri-dominated north-west.
Members of the Majlis, Iran's parliament, have threatened to impeach Mustafa Pourmohammadi, the interior minister, for failing to stem lawlessness in the part-Baluch south-east. Cast an eye over western Iran's troubled Kurdish and Arab regions and you may concur with Rahim Shahbazi, an Azeri nationalist based in America, who calls ethnic strife a “nuclear bomb that will blow away the Iranian regime”. READ MORE
Several days of protests by Iranian Azeris peaked on May 25th, when four demonstrators were killed in the part-Azeri town of Naghadeh. Many Azeris, the biggest minority in a country dominated by ethnic Persians, had not been placated by the banning of the government-owned newspaper in which the offending cartoon appeared, nor by the arrest of the cartoonist and an editor. The killings were only fleetingly acknowledged by the authorities. An official account was hastily withdrawn from the newswire where it was posted.
Iran's Azeris, (perhaps 16m-strong in a population of 70m-plus) are mostly Shia Muslim and have not, compared to Sunni minorities, done badly out of the (Shia) Islamic Republic. Though schooling in Azeri is not permitted and the constitution bans private broadcasting in any language, intermarriage with Persians is widespread and Azeris are well represented in Iran's trading and bureaucratic elite. From the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (himself of Azeri origin) downwards, Iranian officials have blamed the recent unrest on foreign “enemies”.
At a time when the American government is looking for Iranian opposition groups to support, many Iranians believe such claims. Some Azeri nationalists in neighbouring Azerbaijan and others in America used the internet, radio and television broadcasts to incite protesters during the unrest. By contrast, neighbouring Turkey, which also casts a protective eye over its cousins in Iran, kept mum.
Turkey's restraint is partly due to shared interests. Kurdish minorities straddle the border. Emboldened by the autonomy now enjoyed by Iraq's Kurds, and dispirited by their own nationalist parties, some Iranian Kurds were thrilled last year when Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of Turkey's Kurdish rebel movement, called for a region-wide confederation. Since then, according to Kurds from Sanandaj, the capital of the Iranian province of Kurdistan, scores of recruits have crossed into Iraq to join the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), an Iranian' subsidiary of Mr Ocalan's Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Both groups are based in northern Iraq.
Iranian Kurds, especially the Sunni majority, complain that discrimination hurts their promotion chances in the local bureaucracy. In the words of a prominent Iranian Kurdish academic, they “loathe” the state's pro-government Kurdish-language television station. Many Kurds tune in to Roj TV, which carries PJAK propaganda.
The PJAK's popularity has gone up since a Kurdish criminal suspect died at the hands of Iran's security forces last summer, causing much rioting. A Kurdish group says the security forces killed ten demonstrators in a single incident in February.
The Turks were unbothered by Iran's bombardment of suspected PJAK positions in Iraq last month. The Iranians have handed over captured PKK fighters to the Turks, and both countries recently massed troops near the border where Turkey, Iran and Iraq all meet. No government thinks it can seal these mountain border areas, a paradise for smugglers. But the Turks and Iranians aim to intimidate the PKK's Kurdish hosts in Iraq and their American overlords into reining in Mr Ocalan's cohorts.
From one side to the other
At the opposite end of the country, along Iran's border with Afghanistan and Pakistan, the security forces are also being stretched—by dozens of bandit groups and particularly by the savagery of Abdolmalek Rigi, a young Baluch who kills in cold blood in the name of his vaunted ideals, Sunni Islam and Baluchi nationalism. Iran has 4m-plus Baluchis.
Last winter, Mr Rigi's Jundullah, or Soldiers of God, kidnapped nine Iranian soldiers, one of whom they later killed. In March, they held up a convoy and slaughtered 22 people, including officials in the provincial administration of Sistan and Baluchistan. Last month, a similar raid, for which Mr Rigi did not claim responsibility, killed 12 people.
Mr Rigi, who is given publicity by some Arabic TV stations, denies that he trafficks in any of the Afghan opiates that traverse the region in vast quantities; his motives, he insists, are political. According to Mr Pourmohammadi, he flees into Pakistani Baluchistan, where President Pervez Musharraf is struggling to put down an insurgency of his own, with impunity.
In the case of Mr Rigi's attacks, and a series of bomb blasts over the past year in the part-Arab province of Khuzestan, which borders southern Iraq, the Iranians at first blamed the British and Americans—without offering proof. Moreover, the Iranians' lightning response to such atrocities does not suggest painstaking detective work. Not all Iranians were convinced, for instance, by the broadcast confessions of two Arabs later executed for alleged involvement in the blasts in Khuzestan, home to some 2m Arab Iranians. Mr Rigi has appeared on foreign channels to rebut Iranian claims that he has been killed.
Amid daily boasts of captures, deaths and brilliant punitive operations, Iranian officials never admit the role of chronic unemployment and poverty, not to mention Iran's institutionalised distrust of minorities, in stoking the unrest. In Sanandaj, for instance, university graduates may find themselves choosing between manual labour and a life in the hills with PJAK. “Is it surprising”, the academic asks, “that some choose the latter?” It certainly deters would-be investors. Rio Tinto, an Anglo-Australian mining company, recently said it was withdrawing from a gold-mining project in Kurdistan.
“In these cases of minority unrest,” observes a seasoned diplomat from a country bordering Iran, “you see the effects of America's invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.” Sandwiched between countries in a state of flux, whose own minorities sense an opportunity, Iran's border areas are vulnerable. Crucially, though, the instability has yet to affect Iran's populous central areas, where Persians are a big majority.
In a fractious discussion among Iranian exiles last winter at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing think-tank in Washington, it was plain that Iran's mainstream opposition groups are as hostile to minority irredentism as the Islamic Republic is. For all the unrest around its edges, Iran's heartland remains strong, centralised, and unsympathetic to uppity minorities. Iran's nuclear bomb, if it comes, is unlikely to be aimed inwards.